Russell Westbrook's return to the floor may have been the story entering Game 5 of Houston's first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it was the Rockets' defense that ultimately led the way in a 114-80 victory. The Thunder shot a ghastly 31.5 percent from the field, hitting only seven of their 45 3-point attempts. Once Dennis Schroder was ejected in the third quarter, the Thunder had no consistent means of generating offense.
Now the Thunder are only a game away from elimination. Their Cinderella season relies on finding ways to score without compromising their defense. But if Game 5 was any indication, the Thunder are merely picking their own poison. They can space the floor or they can defend James Harden, but in all likelihood, they can't do both. What sort of lineup they come out with for Game 6 will say quite a bit about their priorities as they fight for their postseason lives.
Here are three takeaways from Game 5.
1. The Dort problem
The Rockets didn't exactly treat Lu Dort like Klay Thompson in his first three games this series, but they were fairly blatant about ignoring him offensively in this one. On mostly wide-open looks, Dort shot 3-of-16 from the field and 0-for-9 on 3-pointers. Without having to worry about him, the Rockets packed the paint defensively and took away most of the rest of the Thunder offense. Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander combined for only five points. The basket, in as much as a centerless team can do so, was completely taken away.
The issue at play here was that Dort is the only Thunder defender remotely capable of hampering Harden. That's been the case all series, and the moment Billy Donovan pulled the plug on Dort in the third quarter, Houston pulled away with their offense. The Thunder need to find some way to make Dort playable on offense, because they are utterly incapable of surviving defensively without him. Andre Roberson was a strong cutter even when he couldn't shoot at his peak. Dort can dribble more than he gets credit for. He was far from the only problem on offense in this game, but he can't be a total zero on that end of the floor. No defender can ever justify that in 2020.
2. Westbrook impacted the game without putting up numbers
Westbrook's individual numbers were underwhelming. Nobody's going to write home about seven points on 3-of-13 shooting. But the speed Houston played with offensively in Game 5 was noticeable. The attention Oklahoma City paid to Westbrook got Eric Gordon to the basket quite a bit, and his presence made it significantly harder for the Thunder to cross-match Dort with Harden in transition. When Harden got matchups besides Dort because of it, he took advantage and was aggressive. Harden went 11-of-15 from the field in this game. The bulk of those shots came on the rare occasions without Dort hounding him.
Eventually, Westbrook is going to return to something resembling his star form. They'll get tangible production out of him before the playoffs end. But tonight, they took advantage of the intangible benefits he provides on the way to a victory.
3. Oklahoma City's defense needs plenty of work as well
The Thunder had the regular season's No. 7 defense, but you wouldn't know it watching Houston hunt for some of their defenders in switches. Gilgeous-Alexander played decent defense during the season but has been a complete and utter liability in this series. The same can be said of Gallinari, though his struggles on that end have been a career-long issue.
The Thunder don't have much offensive firepower. This isn't a team designed to score 120 or 130 points. It's built for slow, grind it out wins that haven't been easy to come by in this series. If two players who functioned within a winning defense all season can't survive in the first round, this team never had much of a chance to progress in the playoffs anyway.